Outstanding In Our Field: Biltmore’s Farming Legacy
Written By Jean Sexton
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When it comes to our farm history, Biltmore is truly outstanding in the field. We continue to honor our agricultural legacy today by connecting our present and future initiatives to our historic past.
When George Vanderbilt began planning his grand estate in Asheville, North Carolina, his vision was twofold. First, he wanted to create a place where he could relax and entertain friends and family. Just as important, however, was his desire to preserve the Blue Ridge Mountain beauty surrounding his him.
In choosing Frederick Law Olmsted, world-renown landscape architect, to design the grounds of Biltmore, Vanderbilt was not only setting the stage for some of the most remarkable gardens in America, he was also availing himself of Olmsted’s years of experience in managing vast tracts of public and private land.
After visiting the property in 1889 with Vanderbilt, Olmsted wrote: “My advice would be to make a small park into which to look from your house; make a small pleasure ground and garden, farm your river bottom chiefly to keep and fatten live stock with view to manure; and make the rest a forest, improving the existing woods and planting the old fields.”
Vanderbilt agreed with Olmsted’s recommendations, including the suggestion that agricultural operations be developed and that Vanderbilt implement Olmsted’s long-term plan for sustainability. From this decision came the nation’s first planned forestry program and the beginning of a family focus on environmental stewardship that continues today with George Vanderbilt’s descendants who still own and manage Biltmore.
Agricultural operations at Biltmore were intended to achieve three goals: supplying dairy products, meat, poultry, fruits and vegetables for use in Biltmore House; providing income through sales of farm products; and serving as a learning laboratory in successful farming for farmers and educators.
Receipts and invoices in the estate’s archives document the construction of farm buildings and cottages, the purchase of animals, supplies and equipment, and the hiring of farm staff beginning as early as September 1889.
Agricultural programs included beef, pork, and poultry farms, an apiary, vegetable gardens, fruit orchards, hay for livestock, and more. The most successful of these initiatives would be Biltmore Dairy, which eventually became one of the largest operations in the southeast.
Today, more than 4,000 acres of the estate are managed under a plan written by a certified consulting forester. We utilize selection harvest in 15-year rotations, allowing a chance for different species to grow and mature.
Instead of focusing on just a profitable bottom line, Biltmore strives to create a true multiuse sustainable forest: one that provides healthy wildlife habitats, beautiful aesthetics, recreation opportunities, and the ability to persist for generations to come.
Today’s agricultural operations
Biltmore currently farms approximately 2,500 acres of land. This includes our estate vineyards, cropland for grains and forages, pasturage for cattle, chickens, hogs, sheep, and horses, and greenhouses that supply estate restaurants with fresh produce.
To help preserve one of its most valuable resources—the land—Biltmore seeks to continue the tradition of resource stewardship by following best agricultural practices including rotational grazing of livestock; rotating crops on a four-year cycle to help reduce soil erosion and increase soil fertility; and using goats to control invasive plant species in areas of steep terrain, which allows maintenance crews to take on other projects while reducing some diesel fuel usage in equipment.
Connect past and present farm history in Antler Hill Village
Biltmore continues to honor George Vanderbilt’s legacy of preserving the land and protecting the environment through many ecological, recycling, and alternative energy programs.
In addition, we showcase our agricultural history at Antler Hill Barn located in Antler Hill Village where you can see antique farming equipment, watch craft demonstrations, and visit friendly farm animals at the Farmyard.
Featured image: Archival image of Edith Vanderbilt operating a farm tractor while her daughter Cornelia and others watch.